In December 2015, Planned Parenthood's national president, Cecile Richards, spoke at a Unitarian church near Denver, Colorado. Richards' voice was calm and resolute as she talked about her commitment to serve those who come to Planned Parenthood for health care. Richards was honoring Planned Parenthood staff and volunteers for their steadfast courage and commitment to care after a violent attack on their center a week earlier. She said, "We've seen thousands of patients since last Friday, and will see millions this year…these doors stay open."
Despite a history of facing organized opposition, attempts at intimidation, arson and violence, Planned Parenthood has become the most popular healthcare institution in the United States because they offer the healthcare and service their clients, mostly women, want and need…including abortion to those who freely choose that option.
Cecile Richards knows that if decisions related to contraception and abortion are to remain private, the fight to preserve them must be made public. And that public must be encouraged to vote in the best interests of themselves and their families. Richards and Planned Parenthood's "Action Fund" are key elements in a broad national campaign to identify, register and motivate pro-choice women to vote; run for public office and replace those elected officials afraid to stand up to those who are on the wrong side of American women and their healthcare.
Planned Parenthood's doors first opened in 1916, despite active opposition. At the time, women with low incomes and no reliable means of managing their fertility lived with large families in tiny tenement apartments. Methods of contraception were illegal and maternal death was common. So, too, were dangerous – often fatal – illegal abortions. Margaret Sanger, the nurse who founded the first birth control clinic in the United States, was jailed for her efforts but prevailed to become the founder of an organization that has lasted over one hundred years.
In 2006, Cecile Richards became president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "The reason I took this job," she said, "is I feel like we need to go into the 21st century. Clearly, with some folks in the country, we're going to get there kicking and screaming."
Born in Waco, Texas in 1957, Cecile Richards grew up focused on social justice. In seventh grade, she wore a black armband to school to protest the war in Vietnam. She was sent to the principal's office and scolded for her protest – an experience that helped spark a lifelong passion for activism.
In 1980, Cecile graduated with a B.A. from Brown University and, like her father, became involved in labor issues. From Texas to New Orleans to California, she worked as a labor organizer of low-wage workers. When her mother Ann Richards ran for governor of Texas in 1990, Cecile worked on her campaign. In 1995, concerned with the conservative trends in Texas, Cecile founded the Texas Freedom Network to mobilize support for progressive causes. Later, she became deputy chief of staff for California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who is currently the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2004, before taking her current role, Cecile Richards was the founding president of America Votes, an organization promoting progressive issues. She is married to Kirk Adams, a labor organizer, and they have three children.
As Planned Parenthood approached its centenary in 2016, Cecile Richards was confronted with an attempt by anti-abortion activists to discredit the organization by surreptitiously recording conversations between medical staff and health center workers. The recordings were then edited to make it appear that fetal tissue collected at Planned Parenthood health centers was being provided for research in violation of laws governing donations by patients.
A defining event in the attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood came when the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, interrogated Cecile Richards. For five grueling hours, majority committee members interrupted and talked over Richards. With the allegations against Planned Parenthood losing credibility, committee members attacked Richards and Planned Parenthood on unrelated issues. When the hearing was over, Rep. Chaffetz conceded that his committee found no wrongdoing. Richards said, "If more members of the Senate and Congress could get pregnant, we wouldn't be fighting about Planned Parenthood."
Despite the threats and political attacks, support for Planned Parenthood continues to grow. One in five American women has used Planned Parenthood's services. A survey by Fox News on March 15, 2017 found that the most popular people, organizations, and causes in the country were Bernie Sanders and Planned Parenthood, followed by Obamacare. According to Richards, "We see young women with low incomes. Nearly 75 percent of our patients live at 150 percent of the federal poverty level or below. For many of them, we are the only place they can get access to affordable health care. Planned Parenthood is the safety net in this country…if you're concerned about preventing unintended pregnancy, you should triple the funding for Planned Parenthood."
Planned Parenthood is the preeminent provider of and advocate for reproductive health care in the United States, with more than 600 health centers serving 2.4 million men and women each year. Still, the services of the Planned Parenthood health centers are vulnerable. They face a Congress and an administration poised to eliminate the rights and services made possible by Planned Parenthood.
Cecile Richards, who steps down from leading Planned Parenthood in 2018, has carried the torch of a truth that has echoed for more than 100 years. As Margaret Sanger once said, "No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." For some, that truth is as revolutionary today as it was then.